Referees are unpopular to begin with. Seldom do you see anyone overturning his couch and shouting, “Bless you, ref! Although that call favored the opposing team, I believe it was both difficult and correct! I’m going to send you an Edible Arrangement!”
Replacements are unpopular to begin with. “Oh, great,” you never hear audiences say. “Patti LuPone sprained something and tonight we get her replacement! Wonderful!” (You can sense from this analogy how plugged in I am to the world of football.)
But combine the two, and it’s even worse.
A dubious call at the Packers-Seahawks game cost the Packers a victory, prompting indignation from both sides of the aisle.
The President Obama tweeted about it:
“NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs' lockout is settled soon. -bo”
Rep. Paul Ryan addressed it in his remarks in Ohio on Tuesday.
“It is time to get the real refs," CNN reported Ryan as saying. “And you know what, it reminds me of President Obama and the economy. If you can’t get it right, it’s time to get out.”
Later, he noted: “I have to think that these refs work part time for the Obama administration in the budget office. They see the national debt clock staring them in the face, they see a debt crisis and they just ignore and pretend it didn’t even happen. They’re trying to pick the winners and losers and they don’t even do that very well.”
I’m not sure whose side these refs are on, whether they are sinister agents of Obama who are ignoring the debt clock or what exactly is going on.
But I worry about this casual use of football as a metaphor for the American political system. Do Obama and Ryan really want to invite the comparison? It only goes so far before it grows uncanny. There’s your team. There’s the other team. They are both trying to pass and punt a ball down the field where someone else will have to deal with it, and in order to do this, they employ a lot of deception and shouting. Sometimes, people mandate that they wear padding for safety, but everyone increasingly agrees that the padding does not protect the participants as much as we would like.
Refs pick winners and losers, and if they pick the wrong winners and losers, that’s wrong.
Afterwards, people with microphones inquire how it went.
You cheer for the people from your geographical area who are wearing the same colors as you. You boo the people wearing different colors. After big wins or losses, you are convinced the world is over, but the next morning everything looks fundamentally the same, and you still have to show up at work.
One difference between politics and football is that if you don’t know anything about football and keep yelling nonsensically at the people who do, someone will come along and politely ask you to leave the party. If you know nothing about politics but shout loudly enough, sometimes they give you your own TV show or elect you to something. It is one of the risks you take.
Still, I can see why Obama and Ryan weighed in. Politics, like conversation, is the art of bringing the topic back around to yourself, as unsubtly as possible. “Oh yes, the football game,” you say. “But surely the most important question is: how does the football game relate to meee?”